Like many English Ph.D.s who have taught writing to undergraduates, I was ready to condescendingly award this kid points for “clarity” and “forthrightness” while privately calling him illiterate. But no such condescension occurred to me once he started to talk. Mulvaney is terrific—a natural orator who toggles nimbly between irony and seriousness, doesn't miss a note and—unlike most seasoned politicians—never goes on rhetorical autopilot. He stays in the room; his emotions in the moment color his speech; and he responds to his audience.
After thanking the organizers of the June 8, 2011, town hall meeting in Lake Wylie, S.C., Mulvaney—in a deceptively casual and even self-deprecating way—elegantly prevented boredom by setting the stage for a short, engaged talk with a clear timeframe. He sowed anticipation in the audience for a spirited Q&A. He set people thinking about their questions and set up a reward system for attention-paying. And he unobtrusively laid out the topics of his speech. That is rhetoric.
“Basically, it's about half an hour's worth of information that we'll go over. And then at the end I'll shut up and answer questions for pretty much as long as you all want to sit around. I think when we did this in Rock Hill, we did questions for almost an hour and a half, maybe two hours. And I will take all of the questions. There are folks here who want to talk today about Medicare and Medicaid. There's folks who want to talk about defense spending. I will answer all the questions that I can possibly answer.”
Mulvaney was an honors scholar at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, he attended Harvard Business School and he got a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the man who the Sunlight Foundation now says uses the diction and syntax of a seventh-grader? The least evolved speaker in Congress?
Something is flawed here. I'm beginning to think that the Flesch-Kincaid test, which invented the “reads at an nth-grade-level” metric, is a crock.
Rudolf Flesch was an Austrian who immigrated to the United States, advocated phonics in the teaching of English and published “Why Johnny Can't Read” in 1955. In the 1970s, he and J. Peter Kincaid, a psychologist and Navy scientist, first created their readability test for the military's use with technical manuals.
The notoriously opaque U.S. Constitution merits a whopping 17.8 grade level, and the Federalist Papers come in at 17.1. Oh well, sorreeee you fancy founding documents of the Republic!
On the other end of the scale, the Gettysburg Address lands at an 11.2 grade level. “I Have a Dream” gets the grade of a freshman: 9.4.
Feeling as though I could now face the test myself, I plugged this column into a Flesch-Kincaid readability index calculator. It came in at grade 11—slightly below Lincoln at Gettysburg but safely above Martin Luther King Jr. and “I Have a Dream.”